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Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Salute to Soupy Sales

When I heard of the death of Soupy Sales, I felt like a page had been turned as yet another piece of my childhood was gone. In a world of Mr. Rogers and Romper Room and other bland kid stuff, Soupy really caught my attention as well as millions of other kids. His The Soupy Sales Show was truly inspirational to me, and it made me want to write sketches, perform in them, and be as funny as a six-year old could be.

While other kid shows threw entertaining stuff at you, Soupy had stuff thrown at him. Even though I knew it was coming, I couldn’t wait for that pie to hit Soupy right in the face. Only later on did I know that pie-throwing was a comedy staple that went way back but, as far as I was concerned, Soupy invented it.

I never could really sit through a Mr. Rogers episode. I know many kids did, but I never got far beyond him going into that closet and putting on the sweater. He made me want to sleep more than anything else. I also could only watch a few minutes of Romper Room or Captain Kangaroo, but give me Officer Joe Bolton and the Three Stooges, and I was glued to the television set.

As I remember Soupy Sales and his stable of characters like White Fang, Black Tooth, and the irrepressible Pookie the Lion, all I can think of is the glow I felt after seeing an episode. Besides the expected pie-in-the-face, there was a feeling that Soupy didn’t just know us kids and what we wanted; Soupy was a kid himself.

Whether Soupy was mugging it up with one of his funny expressions, singing a silly tune, or pushing his face right up near the camera, there was a surreal quality to his show that is still, I believe, unsurpassed today. In fact, judging from the television my children have watched over the years, I think Soupy inspired many of the antics I’ve seen on them, especially the talking to the camera routine, most notably on shows like Blues Clues and iCarly.

As a kid I always felt as if Soupy were talking to me, not at me. He stared at that camera and spoke sometimes in a funny voice or a silly voice. It did seem to me that I could expect the unexpected. I knew White Fang’s big paws were going to come into the frame at some point, but not knowing when or where in the show was exciting. Maybe it seems silly now to people, but I thought it was brilliant how White Fang was nothing more than arms and paws, but I thought of him as a real, big, bad doggie. Of course, I thought that because Soupy made him real.

Maybe the best part of the show, or at least the one I found funny and memorable, was how Soupy spoke to Pookie in the window in each episode. Pookie could say and do something funny or sing or whatever, and Soupy would give a deadpan look into the camera and make you believe that this was a real little crazy lion he was dealing with.

I know memory makes things seem fonder to us over the years, and I have not seen an episode of the show in probably forty years, but I can never forget it. It was an important and meaningful part of my childhood, and I think Soupy’s greatest impact on me and other kids was to free up our inner slapstick persona. We could enjoy this kind of thing freely and realize the best part of being a kid was using our imaginations to be anything we wanted to be, even a funny man in front of the camera talking to a dog’s paw.

Unfortunately, some people only recall the silly incident when Soupy told us kids to take money from our parents and send it to him. I was too little to remember the fallout, except I think he was punished and had the show taken off the air for a time. I didn’t get too far taking the money from my mother’s purse, but when I got caught and told her Soupy said to do it, she didn’t get mad; she just laughed because Mom got his humor too.

Later in his career I’d see Soupy on What’s My Line?, and he was the only reason I would watch that show. While more restrained in this venue, Soupy still got to mug for the camera as much as he could, and that made it worth watching. I recall Soupy appearing as a guest star on other shows, but unfortunately he never had the success he had with his own show, the one I remember most fondly.

All I can say is thank you, Soupy, for making each day a little brighter for the children of the 1960s. Also, thank you for letting us know that humor could be found in places no one expected, like in a window with a puppet, or the arms of an unseen mumbling dog, and mostly in the face of a comic genius who came close to the camera and straight into our hearts. Rest in peace, Soupy.